I have loved and lost San Francisco multiple times during our tempestuous, decades-long relationship. I understand that it is through the sheer generosity (or benign negligence) of my landlord that I can afford to stay in the city and make my way as an artist, but one day soon a strong wind will blow my house down and I will have to move away. I can feel my grip on the city loosening and, as the discussion or the argument (or maybe it’s just a bitchfest) over the future of the city’s cultural life intensifies, I also feel myself unable to step up to my fickle lover’s defense.
I mangle this metaphor as I regurgitate it (shout out to recent posts by Michelle Tea and Stephanie Syjuco, in particular), but San Francisco really is like a boyfriend/girlfriend (possibly trans) who knows he/she is hotter than you and is constantly on the lookout for a more worthy mate. Maybe that mate is smarter or more beautiful. Or maybe just wealthier; I didn’t know the city was a gold digger, although with its roots in the Gold Rush I should have suspected. This is an important part of the city’s history that is often overlooked: the lure of the boom looms large.
San Francisco never ages, he/she is consistently seductive, a natural beauty and an enduring idea. But as we negotiate our breakup, I wonder if it’s possible to see my beloved more clearly. How much am I dazzled by my own projections and how much is really there? How much was always a myth?
Where the Outsiders Are In
The myth becomes true if enough people invest it with power. That was certainly the case for the Beats in the 1950s, and for the hippies during the Summer of Love. It was also undeniably true of the city as gay world capital, a ’70s haven on the cutting edge of queer rights and culture and then ’80s refuge for a community buffeted by the scourge of AIDS.
When I arrived, the gay party was already over. Bathhouses were embattled and being closed by the health department; young men hobbled down the streets, reduced to purple-spotted skin and bones. The queer community was tired, devastated by the amount of adult reality it had been forced to face and the hatred and bigotry that was being foisted upon it during its time of greatest need. There were no mentors. There was no one around to take a young, confused boy — drawn to the city with the promise of belonging — by the hand, welcome him into the fold and teach him how to be healthy, well-adjusted and gay. Perhaps that was the first time I saw through the myth to the reality and understood that it would be up to me to build my own community. I searched the streets for others like me.
I discovered them squirreled away within various warehouses in the Mission and South of Market Districts. Drawn by cheap rents, artists (at that time predominantly middle and working class, with a healthy mix of immigrants, runaways, hustlers and the occasional trust fund slummer) had begun invading these once largely Latino and light industrial neighborhoods, but not yet in numbers so great that a real displacement was being felt. However, aren’t we artists the first sign of a coming neighborhood apocalypse? Didn’t we make the space safe for the kind of capitalism that is now pushing us out?
I often wonder at the loud protestations of today’s artists when they, too, are being displaced. Weren’t the same things said when we first arrived to take advantage of cheap rents? Then our friends came to visit and realized the neighborhood wasn’t as bad as it had been portrayed. And then slowly things began to change. The local diner became a coffee shop serving better coffee at a higher price. The local junk shop turned “vintage,” marketing the same stuff only perceived and valued in a different way. Cheap ethnic eatery gets taken over by an eager chef wanting to strike out on her own and make good food using local ingredients. Prices rise; the economic engine gets going, speeds up and there’s no telling when or where it will come to a stop.
And what cycle, I wonder, will overtake the techies who are even now changing the neighborhoods that attract them? What will replace the creative industry of the artists who are being forced to flee? This new group is being drawn to the city by the same things that drew previous populations: a thriving culture and the presence of like-minded individuals. In the San Francisco of today, techies can find others who speak their language and share their visions of a digital utopia, whatever shapes that may take. They have created a culture of start-up entrepreneurialism that has altered the atmosphere and with it comes a whole new set of values and priorities both public and private.
San Francisco: The Suburb
The process of continuous change and re-invention is an important element to keeping a city alive. However, there is something puzzling and counter-intuitive about this or any city becoming a bedroom community to an industry located elsewhere — especially one premised on replacing occupations with apps and moving whole industries into “the cloud.” It is easy to view this activity as a drain. Disruptive tech lives up to its name while the rate of change becomes dizzying. (See David Talbot’s San Francisco or bust at 48hillsonline.org for more on this subject.)
Living with this kind of uncertainty inevitably causes conflict. Yes, more tech money has arrived in the city, but it has brought a whole new kind of energy that, in some sectors, has created fertile ground for new kinds of experimentation and innovation — and possibly new forms of art. But that art hasn’t arrived yet. In the age of the 3-D printer, are we entering a period where conceptual art — in the form of printer instructions — overtakes object art? This question, which has been posed for decades in the art world, just hurts my heart, perhaps because I am so attached to practice, tactility and craft. I understand the years of work that go in to becoming good at something. Is object making integral to what it means to be human? Or was it during the part of our evolution that is now passing?
I keep hearing a small voice inside telling me that something important is being lost, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. I know that the closure of so many galleries and art spaces means a shrinking art scene with fewer opportunities for artists to exhibit, sell work and build support for their practice. Most importantly, the middle ground of the mid-career professional — the space inhabited by working artists (in other words the middle class) — is crumbling. How will today’s emerging artists survive, much less thrive? As an artist, this information translates into a statement that should be unthinkable: “San Francisco is over.”
Life Is Hard and Then You Die
Perhaps these issues are so difficult because of art’s dual nature. On the one hand, artists create ephemeral gestures that capture and inflect what it is like to BE HERE NOW. When people say that impacted artists and arts organizations should just move to another part of the Bay, they ignore two important points. First, being priced out is not limited to the city alone — and displacements domino. Secondly, how does one reflect what it means to be HERE from someplace else? Artists soak in our environments using daily experience as raw material. In a sense, all art is site specific.
The other part of the art equation is the eternal. We make new art alongside and in dialogue with the towering masters who have withstood the test of time. When we think of art, we often conjure images that seemingly stand outside of history. Perhaps this idea of timelessness is factored in to the emotion around losing an art space as opposed to some other enterprise. Art’s juxtaposition of the ephemeral and the permanent is what makes it so vital.
This duality is also there when we think of home. Though it is disconcerting to contemplate, the city we call home is not permanent — we only need another big quake to demonstrate that fact — and we are even more temporary residents. For a brief moment, we take ownership and shape the space to suit our needs.
Problem is, eviction from one’s home or community cannot help but feel personal. One can only imagine how the older gay men who survived hatred, discrimination and the AIDS crisis only to be swept out of The Castro by babies in strollers must feel. Perhaps the same way the Irish working class families felt when they were displaced by queers. This must be what it’s like to get old: You spend your whole life nurturing something that disregards your contribution, devalues and ultimately discards you. Such is the cycle of life.
Belonging, Diversity, Social Justice: There’s an App for That
Someone recently posted on one of KQED Arts’ message boards about being a misfit and looking to San Francisco as a place where misfits somehow belong — another of the city’s myths. This made me sad and I felt compelled to respond because the very definition of a misfit is someone who doesn’t fit, and it seemed that the writer was confused about a basic tenet of his or her own assumed identity. As humans we are compelled to search out others of like mind and create community, yet there are also those of us who identify strongly as outsiders. An outsider will always be looking in with melancholy, it is part of who we are, and in the age of the global popularity contest called Facebook, being “liked” has puzzlingly become part of our job description. What does that mean for the “other”? How can the city have gone from a Mecca for misfits to the leading exporter of a culture of “like”?
So, what are the myths we tell ourselves about the meaning of San Francisco? And is it possible to separate what we see (and what we want to see) from what’s really there? Resisting cultural change is a fool’s errand, though not fighting for what you believe in is equally abhorrent. But are we fighting to save something that has already vanished? Or, worse yet, may never have been there in the first place? What San Francisco are you trying to hold onto? What role did you play in creating the San Francisco that now exists, and is forcing you out? Can you let your beloved move on to grow, change and become something you no longer recognize — someone you would never fall for and someone who wouldn’t give you the time of day?
When I look back on my three decades in the city, I know that it was the cheap rent, from the walk-in closet I occupied for $90/month to the $300/month room I rented in Dogpatch, that made it possible for me to do things like attend school and dedicate myself to an art practice. But how do college students do it now? I pride myself for having lived in every bad neighborhood in San Francisco, but they are all upscale now. How is it possible for a barista to afford a walk-in closet even in the Tenderloin? And how does a city continue to function if the workers — bus drivers, teachers, waiters, and yes, artists — who are responsible for its services can no longer afford to live here?
I was shocked a couple of months back — or was it longer? (the pace of change creates its own alternate universe of time) — to discover that the Hayes Street drag bar Marlena’s had been replaced by a new swanky, upscale — and packed — bar with a front window that opened out onto the street. As I walked past, two young dudes stood out front smoking what looked like oversized cartoon cigars. I remembered this incident recently after hearing the Mission drag bar Esta Noche was being replaced by something similar. It was an interesting feeling.
I hadn’t been to Marlena’s in over a decade and it had never been a favorite hangout, but I found solace in the fact of its existence. When it disappeared I was shocked, which was a feeling made more absurd by the fact of Hayes Valley itself. Back in the late 1980s, when I lived on Hayes and Fillmore, that place was underneath a freeway and the idea of it populated with upscale boutiques and eateries would have been laughable. But Marlena’s was there, along with the nightly street theater provided by its colorful patrons. Where do they perform now? And who gets to find amusement in their alternate universe of drama and comedy? Who will love the misfits while they survive? And when they are gone, how will we know what we have lost?
All artwork by Cliff Hengst from Gotta get a message to you, a month-long residency at Right Window. A new message appears every day through March, 2014. Closing party Sunday, March 30, 5-7pm.